For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. – Ephesians 6.12
I get several emails a week from church “gurus” with the seven easy steps to church growth, or the six principles of a welcoming church, or the eight things every church needs to have to be healthy. You get the picture. I read some, but mostly I throw them into the trash folder immediately. If I have learned anything since starting seminary 14 years ago, it is that if there is a list of steps or things or principles it will not be helpful.
Church cannot be saved with steps, things, or principles. Honestly, church can’t be saved at all by anything we do. We are outgunned! We are not simply struggling against flesh and blood, we struggle against forces and histories far bigger than anything any of us could resist. No “guru” or principle or idea will lead the church back to health.
If you aren’t in a state of despair after the first two paragraphs I’m concerned for you. What we are doing in calling ourselves a congregation of people who love and care for each other is radical. Virtually every force within our culture and society is driving us toward individualism and hiding ourselves. This process has a history hundreds of years long. One could make a strong argument that the Roman Empire of Jesus’ time was engaged in exactly the same activity. Groups of people who love and care for each other are dangerous to the powers and principalities of this world. Jesus’ death was a public execution meant as a message against anyone who would dare to draw people toward a beloved community.
Without a clear eyed understanding of these forces we do not fully appreciate the challenge of our calling. This struggle is most acute for those of us who take our calling to follow Christ earnestly. We must be diving ever deeper into our relationship with Christ as he is our only hope. Christ was no “guru”, he is love incarnate.
So much of discipleship within the church has looked like behavior modification. We should “act” like Christians. We should extent grace and love toward one another. We should never get angry. We should not swear. We should not gossip. We should always dress modestly. We should be reverent at the appropriate times. We should “should” all over ourselves.
This should-ing is actually the antithesis of discipleship. Discipleship is not behavior modification. It is not acting. It is learning the way of Christ so we embody the Spirit of Christ in our very essence. This embodiment of the Spirit is what drove the pharisees crazy about Christ. He didn’t do what he “should”. Those bracelets from 20 years ago “What Would Jesus Do?” were trying to get at this, but they didn’t quite get there. They should have said “How Would Jesus Be?” but HWJB doesn’t roll off the tongue quite like WWJD. My studies over this past year have been exceedingly helpful in developing sensitively to the Spirit of Christ moving in our midst. I see it and feel it every time we gather together. Unfortunately, the spirit of darkness is also a presence at times.
To be a healthy, vibrant congregation we must more and more embody the Spirit of Christ with ourselves, each other, and our community. Christ’s Spirit of love, grace, and mercy crowds out all other spirits. As the Gospel of John reminds us, “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.” This must be our focus. As we walk in the Spirit of Christ, God will use our congregation for Christ’s ministry more fully and more joyfully than we could ever imagine! May it be so.
Humbly Submitted in Christ’s Service,
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